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Legitimate Spirituality or Pseudo Science?

The Church of Scientology was founded in 1954 by L. Ron Hubbard, who first came to prominence in the US as a science fiction writer. Today it is perhaps best known for its celebrity adherents, among them Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

Scientology tries to package itself not so much as a religion, but as a way of life that is compatible with adherence to Christianity or other world religions. (Critics, some of them discussed below, suggest that Hubbard was actually deeply skeptical of traditional religions.) In a sense, Scientology tries to position itself as standing upon three sources of authority: the inspiration of its founder, the validity of its "science," and the effectiveness of its technology, namely, the E-meter, discussed below. While maintaining that it has no creeds or theology, the Church of Scientology does promote a set of ideas that claim both scientific and spiritual legitimacy. In doing so, it attracts critics from the scientific community as well as from traditional religious groups who find its claims to truth problematic.

A Typically American Religion

I would suggest that Scientology is a typically American spiritual movement in eschewing what it regards as outmoded tradition, emphasizing practical results, and making an unapologetic appeal to the rich and the famous. It is also typically American in its optimism, its affirmation of material success as one of the central fruits of spiritual practice, and in its willingness to adopt both science and technology as sources of wisdom. Ironically, many of these same traits are evident within that spiritual movement that is most critical of Scientology, namely American evangelical Christianity.

As hard as it is to develop an unbiased view of Scientology, let's give it a try. First let's take a look at definitions of Scientology found in widely respected reference works:

The Church of Scientology
Founded in 1954, the Church of Scientology is based on the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard (1911-86), a successful science fiction writer who invented 'Dianetics'. Although having a mind and body, the individual is considered to be essentially a 'Thetan' - a soul or spirit of an immortal nature which goes from life to life. Scientologists say that their principal sacrament is 'auditing', the purpose of which is to 'clear' the Thetan of past painful experiences. A device called an E-meter is used by auditors to help them locate the 'engrams' or blockages that are causing problems.

The movement, which claimed over 10,000 staff members worldwide by 1990, offers a wide range of courses, is associated with a drug rehabilitation programme called Narconon and actively lobbies against what it perceives as social ills, particularly in the field of mental health.

There is a long history of criticism from certain ex-members and the cult-watching movement. In 1968 the British government imposed restrictions on foreigners entering the UK to study or work for Scientology; these were lifted in 1980 after a government inquiry (the Foster Report).

From John R. Hinnels, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Religions, 2nd ed. (1997). Text © Penguin Books.

An international movement that emerged in the 1950s in response to the thought of Lafayette Ronald Hubbard (b. March 13, 1911, Tilden, Nebraska, U.S.—d. January 24, 1986, San Luis Obispo, California), a writer who introduced his ideas to the general public in Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950). Hubbard's stated goal was to analyze humankind's mental aberrations and to offer a means for overcoming them. He eventually moved away from Dianetics' focus on the mind to a more religious approach to the human condition, which he called Scientology. The Church of Scientology was founded in 1954.

From Wendy Doniger, ed., Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions (1999). Text © Merriam-Webster, Inc.

Now to some websites that reflect an array of attitudes about Scientology

Scientology: The Basics
An overview of Scientology: its history, the controversy surrounding it, its beliefs and practices.

Welcome to Scientology
The official website of the Church of Scientology.

Scientology: Documents and New Stories
The Center for Studies on New Religions follows important events relating to what it views as one of the world's "fastest growing religions."

The Scientology Comparative Theology Page
This site was put together by a Christian who once explored Scientology and discovered what he views to be its anti-Christian bias. He documents negative statements about Christianity (and other world religions) made by L. Ron Hubbard.

Scientology: A Cult?
This website is sponsored by an evangelical Christian group that views Scientology as a cult. Hence, the information about Scientology contained on this site is biased by that assumption, but may be worth looking at as representative of what many Christians think about this religion. Keep in mind that one definition of a cult is: "Any religion, especially a relatively new one, that promotes beliefs and practices I find objectionable or offensive."

The Secrets of Scientology
While many critics of Scientology are Christian, others are not. Indeed, Scientology is criticized more often for its scientific pretensions than its theological claims. This site is a good example of one such critique put together my a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University.

Bottom Line

Is Scientology a legitimate religion? A cult? Is it pseudo-science? A public relations stunt? A money making scam? Or is it a spiritual movement in an advanced stage of adolescence? If it's the latter, and I think a good case can be made for that description, give it another hundred years or so, and you may find it taking its place in the pantheon of respected world religions.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2015).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2017).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.
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